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Featured Sliders / Health & Fitness / HER Community / HER Health / Lifestyle / Stories / March 16, 2021

Committing to wellness efforts is key to mental health

Story by Nina Todea
Photos by Liv Paggiarino

For whatever it is that makes your heart happy, whatever creates a safe space or a moment of solitude within the walls of your mind, Erin Peneston has two words of advice: Do it.

The goal is simple.

“Life isn’t always picture perfect. You’re still going to have bumps in the road,” she said. “I really just want to empower people to live their best lives.”

It’s no secret the previous year was tough. From losses of jobs to losses of identity, to losses of friends or family, it’s been a domino effect of one thing after another for some, and mental health and wellness professionals across the nation have picked up on the trends.

Tricia Orscheln is a licensed professional counselor and founder at Tree Of Hope Counseling and Wellness Center (Submitted)

At Tree Of Hope Counseling and Wellness Center, licensed professional counselor and founder Tricia Orscheln can list those trends rather quickly.

High levels of generalized and social anxiety have become commonplace within adults and children. Then there’s depression, weight gain and sleep deprivation, often rolled into or caused by one another, and anger management issues, like when you’re “on vacation too long and it’s time for everybody to go home,” Orscheln said.

“Nobody knew the longevity of (the pandemic). Everyone was kind of blindsided by it, especially when Missouri shut down,” Orscheln said. “And fear levels went up, and fear basically creates anxiety. Anxiety doesn’t exist without fear.”

Her job hasn’t become any easier; in many ways, it now includes an increased focus on self-care awareness.

“I like to call it building a mental health toolbox,” Orscheln said. “Each time a client comes in, I like to plant seeds so that they can take that information and apply it. They do their 50 percent out of the office, and I do my 50 percent in the office to help them create wellness action plans driven toward their immediate needs.”

With self-care awareness, and specifically stress management, which she’s addressed more frequently in the past year, it’s first critical to identify potential triggers.

“We look at what is stressing you out, identify triggers and teach people to just be more insightful,” Orscheln said. “They’re their best experts. They know themselves better than us.”

Being your best expert is part of what makes self-care and an increased focus on mindfulness as effective as it is.

What is self-care? Some might be under the impression it’s the “treat yourself” moments (also often referred to as retail therapy), but self-care is much more, and much less, than a new bag or a professional massage. Self-care starts in the inner workings of the mind and eases its way out.

It often doesn’t require a sit-down therapy session; it tends to be free and works on the schedule you give it.

And, because self-care is personalized to fit your needs, there’s a plethora of ways, and arguably no inherently incorrect way, to approach self-care as people continue to balance their lives inside and out.

Yoga instructor Erin Peneston demonstrates a pose.

For Peneston, that method is yoga.

“I would say it’s probably my No. 1 regimen for self-care,” she said. “I found yoga, and it really has changed my life completely.”

Peneston, now a yoga instructor at her personal business, The Dancing Lotus, was immediately drawn to yoga. At a time in her life when things weren’t quite going right, she was invited to a yoga session at a studio in Springfield, where she was living at the time. It was like nothing else she had ever tried.

With a background in dance and competitive cheerleading, yoga and its emphasis on movement felt like a natural next direction for Peneston. She took up buti yoga, a style of vinyasa yoga that focuses on deeper conditioning and more cardio-intensive movements than what one might find within traditional yoga. It incorporates tribal dance and primal movements and is “a little more outspoken than your traditional yoga class — not to mention the intense sweat and calorie burn,” Peneston said.

One thing about buti yoga, she said, is it focuses on becoming empowered and connecting mind to muscle even while being physically challenging.

Some students come in thinking they’ll get a good workout. And while that may be true, it’s more than that. Focusing entirely on the workout means a student might completely miss the benefit to their mind, which for Peneston is really the primary goal.

“As we’re moving or holding a pose, it’s burning, we’re sweating, and I’m like, ‘Dig deep. Find your power. You got this,’” she said. “And what I really mean by digging deep is that I want you to feel something more than a physical connection. I want to make you feel some type of emotion through that.”

That emotion, which has even led to students crying after class, is brought to the mat and let go. It’s an emotional release of pent-up stress some may not even know they’re holding onto, she added.

“And I don’t know about you, but I’ve never been to a gym … where I started crying after,” Peneston said. “It’s just a different type of release.”

The elements of yoga itself, though, are what Peneston hopes her students can apply to their daily lives, whether that’s dealing with emotions in a constructive way, employing breathing techniques to calm anxious hearts or simply slowing down and taking a moment to recompose the mind and body. What yoga can do, Peneston said, is create an overall positive outlook on life. When someone is physically and emotionally well, it has the potential to inspire change in other parts of life, too. Maybe it’s more sleep or perhaps a redefined diet — though, she noted, yoga isn’t a fix-all.

Yoga instructor Erin Peneston demonstrates a pose.

Through her practice of yoga, Peneston has felt an increased sense of empowerment. Stepping into a yoga class requires you to “leave your ego at the door,” she said. The yoga mat is a vulnerable place, she added, and there’s something about being on that mat and focusing on yourself that in turn transforms into confidence.

“I was able to take those things that I was doing in yoga and apply those to my everyday life. It eventually led me to being able to leave the darker situation that I was in,” she said. “That totally changed everything for me.”

It’s amazing what setting time aside for self-care can do for your mental health, Peneston reflected. It can be something as basic as sitting with a good book or hair-wash day. Orscheln is also a big advocate of talking walks, listening to positive podcasts and motivational speakers, and movement in general. Though to really make a difference, some type of movement ought to happen every day, she noted.

“And that does not mean you have to get in 10,000 steps when you’re living in a two-bedroom apartment,” Orscheln said. “We’ve got to be realistic with this stuff.”

A simple walk around the neighborhood three to four times a week, or some sort of cardio 20 minutes a day can help reduce symptoms of depression and increase sleep, Orscheln said, both elements tied into overall self-care.

As some people may continue working from home into the coming months, another method of self-care Orscheln proposes for finding balance is creating the time to build in a “drive in and drive home.” This could be listening to music (as a drive would allow) or a 20-minute meditation. Writing the activity into a mental schedule allows for a “transition from their job to their personal life,” Orscheln said.

Following the routine after it’s decided on is just as, if not more, important. Routine helps center the mind with a purpose, Orscheln said. It’s important to note, though, not all routines will look the same as they did pre-pandemic. Some offices have decided their workers are better situated at home.

“What I try to create with my clients now, even though some of them haven’t gone back to work, is I want them to create their new normal. What does that look like?” Orscheln asked. “We take little pieces of the puzzle, and we try to put them and fit them all back in, but we’re creating a brand new landscape. We’re looking at something different than what our pieces showed us prior to COVID.”

A hopeful reopening of sectors of social life and workplaces in the coming months also brings an entirely different piece of the puzzle for some — namely, introverts, who are more than happy to continue a “pandemic-like” lifestyle. This is where self-care takes a twist past the physical methods and routine.

Prioritize what’s important, Orscheln said, and take the time to ease back into social situations when possible. Use baby increments when needed to re-acclimate and constantly check in with your own comfort levels. Create SMART goals that are specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and timely for yourself. Be mindful of what it is you hope to attain.

“It’s important for a person who is introverted to not set themselves up for failure, feeling like they have to dive in,” Orscheln said. “A lot of times, if we give people their own green light, when it puts them in control in baby increments, they’re going to have more success because they set it up, they followed through and they felt a sense of accomplishment.”

With self-care, what’s often most important is awareness and mindfulness, Orscheln said. Self-care cannot happen without a conscious effort.

In the same way Peneston noted the physical act of practicing yoga requires a commitment of time and a desire to show up, so does mental self-care.

Peneston has been practicing yoga since 2015, training for and becoming an instructor not long after attending her first yoga class. But those previous years haven’t passed without a conscious effort to make time for her self-care regimen.

“You gotta show up,” Peneston said, “and that’s everything in life, in my opinion. You gotta make a commitment to show up, or nowadays, make time to do it at home. That’s where you start.”

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